Friday, February 24, 2017


Perhaps twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov's Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine because it had a cover story named "Queenmagic, Pawnmagic" by Ian Watson. The story was fairly good, about a boy named Pedino who comes of age in the medieval setting of Bellogard, a city of light locked in war with an antithetical city of dark named Chorny. Ordinary citizens live their lives ignorant of the conflict which is fought magically between the lords and squires of the realm. During a practical joke gone horribly wrong, Pedino is found to have a soul and overnight goes from the son of a tradesman to Pawn/Squire.

Recently, I was delighted to find out that the story from that magazine was part of a larger book, "Queenmagic, Kingmagic". However, my enthusiasm was tempered when I read the story to the end. I think Act I and Act II are strong with insight into the human experience transplanted to a chess-themed one. I suppose the main constant throughout is that the main character has a preoccupation with a series of women in his life. But I'm disappointed as usual with Act III, which almost discards the groundwork of the previous two-thirds. The story goes through palace intrigue and star-crossed romance, but then there is a left turn into action-packed multiverse theory before returning home to a meandering wrap-up. The story goes through a succession of discarded quests - victory, survival, home, family, love - none of which seem resolved satisfactorily.

Perhaps Mr. Watson didn't want to write for a chessically educated audience, since there seemed to be strange liberties such as a pawn being lost during castling. There were perhaps three main battles but treatment of the strategy and tactics were disappointingly superficial. One problem the author seemed to have is that in his description of Pedino's life, the pawn had agency and soul, but when the larger kingdom came into focus, there was an element of Destiny that stole the agency from the Pieces acting as players within this life-sized game.

My twenty-something self was struck back then by this passage relevant to our current discussion of dead and wounded pieces:

Queen Alyitsa was dead – murdered by Prince Feryava of Chorny. Bishop Slon was dead, killed by Bishop Zorn. Squire Iris was dead, protecting Bishop Veck.

The survivors were: the king, Bishop Veck, Sir Brant, Prince Ruk, and five of us squires. Henchy was injured; his wrist had been broken. It would stay that way for the rest of his life. Magical injuries did not heal unless you killed the person who inflicted them.

Despite its shortcomings, it was fun to see perspective shift to life among the pieces. It reminded me of this poem which I posted back during the death of Bobby Fischer:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Vulture Culture

Temposchlucker's blog has spilled some digital ink (bits and bytes?) on vultures lately. I found this comment in a post entitled KISS:

The first state is when we circle like a vulture above the board and look with a disciplined mind at the board. We see, almost parallel, everything what's going on, without identifying ourself with whatever happens down there. We see the trains driving from station to station, and from above we can see all stations and trains at the same time (parallel).

The second state is when something catches our attention, and we jump on the bandwagon. From that moment on, we rumble from station to station in a sequential way. We are totally identified with what we see, and it feels as if our train is driving through a tunnel. We only know about the station we just left, and the station we are heading to, and what we can see sideways from the windows of our forth thundering train. Our attention progresses from station to station in a serial way, unaware of what is going on elsewhere.

In the language I'm used to, the vulture represents breadth of chess calculation, while the train represents depth of chess calculation. The goal of chess calculation is to miss nothing important, shallow or deep, and thereby play nearly perfect chess like the computers and Super Grandmasters. One kind of error in chess is the horizon effect, usually relating to computer search depth: a move looks good until you see three moves later that it is refuted by an inescapable sequence. This is the fault of the train in the analogy above. No one told us that the station three stops away was being repaired. For this post, I wanted to concentrate on the vulture because it relates more directly to errors of vision in chess and our quest to see those little Hobbitses that conspire to stay hidden:

One of the appeals of chess, or almost any board game, is that we sit surveying the board like gods above a miniature world. The chess world is populated by sculptures that are imbued with varying geometry of movement, as opposed to the uniform diagonal of checkers, or the character attributes of Dungeons and Dragons avatars. As opposed to information hidden in the roll of a 20-sided die, the information of chess is evident in the positions of the pieces with a tiny bit encoded in the history of that particular game (e.g. castling and en passant privileges). Vultures fly overhead and check out the lay of the land.

NM Dan Heisman states, ""The most important principle in chess is SAFETY; second is ACTIVITY; everything else on the board is relatively unimportant." Being a lumper, I interpret the activity of your own pieces to be the extent to which they threaten the safety of your opponent's pieces and vice versa. One piece's activity is another piece's lack of safety, so there is a reduction back down to a single principle of safety. As beginners, we start evaluating by counting the pieces. Pieces that are off the board don't count. They are effectively dead for the rest of the game. But before they are removed from the board, they can be in various states of health: convalescing in their home positions, immobilized by positioning in the corners or edges of the board, limited by enemy or frenemy forces, and at death's doorstep (en prise). In Go, groups of stones have Life and Death. Pieces in chess have safety and activity, death and life:

I find it ironic that the doctor in the comic uses the word "activity". As chess players, it is pretty much our job to notice when pieces are safe or unsafe, protected or loose, good and bad, strongly posted or insecure. As beginners, the first level of vulnerability we see in our opponent's pieces is the completely loose, unprotected pieces. Capture the free stuff is what I tell my beginning student.:

Especially in beginner-level chess, mistake-prone humans will leave material unprotected. All that is required at this level is being careful of your own pieces' safety and patience for your opponent to leave a piece behind to die alone the desert.

After a while, it's not enough just to wait for someone to drop something. Around Class A/B level, chess players get through entire games without blundering any material. In this environment, the vulture analogy breaks down a bit. It's no longer enough to be a scavenger. We have to upgrade to being predators. Alexander Alekhine is quoted as saying, "During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk." Alekhine also said, "I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his."

At least one article indicates that criminal predators choose their targets from the way people walk. Analogous to gait in a person, mobility of a piece on the chessboard depends on space, safe squares to move to, whether it is pinned to more valuable pieces, etc. When we capture a mere pawn, Aron Nimzovich spoke of an entire process, "First restrain, then blockade and finally destroy." So how freely a piece can move can often correlate with how vulnerable it is. If it is crawling, there is a good chance it might make a good meal for our vulture.

To broaden our definitions, sometimes the target in chess is not a moribund piece, but rather a key square. Vultures also need nice places to roost as well as the occasional carcass.

Computers have taught us that sometimes, positions that look hopelessly lost actually have hidden defensive resources in order to save a draw for the weaker side. Again, in Go, there is a state called Seki where two opposing groups of stones have features that cannot be resolved into Life and Death. These might be analogous to drawing fortresses or stalemate positions in chess. Investing in phantom possibilities is the flip side of being a vulture: when NOT to invest energy pursuing a line that evaluates unfavorably. The hypothesis must occasionally be nullified.

Draw! (gunslinging, art, and chess puns all intended). At the end of the game, what motivates us chess players is a desire for victory signified by the death of the opponent's king. In this pageant of flight, eyesight, error, opportunism, and death, the vulture is apt analogy.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Magneto's Prison

My first chess composition began while I was teaching a beginner how to checkmate with two rooks using the steamroller technique:

I wanted to test the student's ability to see how the pieces might protect each other from a double attack and so I presented this position. White to move and save both rooks:

As the beginner pondered how to save the rooks, I wondered whether such a position was possible with White to move, since Black's king is almost stalemated and he has no visible means to mark time. This got me thinking along the lines of retrograde analysis a la "The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes" by Raymond Smullyan. On top of the requirement for LEGAL moves in retrograde analysis, I wondered whether Black would make LOGICAL moves to get to this position, basically meaning can we get to this without White having to leave a rook en prise for one or more moves? I answered both questions with this new setup and sequence of moves. White to move and get to the diagram above:

1.Rf3+ Kxg4

With my current reading of Kubbel's 150 Endgame Studies, I decided to make a little composition and ran through many possible movie-themed or atomic-themed names to give a worldly root to my abstract composition: Phantom Zone a la Superman 2; hydronium ion with 2 electrons around 1 proton; maybe just helium; unobtainium which is mentioned in James Cameron's Avatar and in The Core; maybe Bose-Einstein condensate in the movie Spectral. Finally, I decided that the rooks should land at the corners and a queen should stabilize the tight square around the king. The last corner might as well be a White Knight. And finally, using the White King's opposition to force the Black King to capture the White Bishop, I thought of the prison that held Magneto at the end of X-Men (2000). Best of all, there are two knights playing chess together in this scene.

Soapstone's Chess Problem #1: "Magneto's Prison"

Dedicated to Two Knights: Sir Patrick "Jean-Luc Picard" Stewart and Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellan

White to checkmate in 2 moves

FEN 8/8/8/5N1R/3K1kB1/3R1q2/5p2/5Q2 w - - 0 1

The solution is nearly trivial: 1.Rxf3+ Kxg4 2.Qh3#, leaving the Black King trapped in a four-cornered cage:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Stalemate Swindle

Frenez, one of my three readers, requested that I show a recent tournament stalemate. I was totally busted playing white against an 1800 player. The moves are not cleverly hidden like in Kubbel's studies; in fact, they're natural and obvious. White to play and draw:

69.b7! Qc7 70.b8=Q! Qxb8! stalemate! To my memory, this is the only one of my 540+ tournament games that ended in a complex stalemate. Now that Frenez has gotten the stalemate, I'm going to go in reverse chronological order like my Memento series and go over some of the crucial moments of this game. Feel free to change the channel when I get long-winded. I almost resigned this game prematurely. In the above diagram, I could see that b7 was going to be followed by Qc7, but Ka7 was going to be met by Qxa5+, so my only other option was to give up the b-pawn which was my only hope, but I hardly considered stalemate until I was one ply away and saw that it succeeded in giving me the draw. Notice that the Black King is at e6, blockading my passed pawn and preventing it from moving - we'll visit this later. The above diagram is already approximately equal. After 69.b7, Black has no real alternative to 69...Qc7 except perpetual check starting with 69...Qc6+ 70.Ka7 Qc7 {pinning the queening pawn} 71.a6 d4 72.Ka8 {unpinning} Qc6 {repinning} 73.Ka7, etc. Black blew the win one move earlier in the following diagram with Black to play:

Almost everything wins, EXCEPT 68...Qc5?, e.g. 68...Kd7 leads to mate in 8, 68...Qb4 leads to mate in 9, 68...Qb2 leads to mate in 10, the greedy 68...Qxe5 leads to mate in 10, and even the dithering 68...Qc4+ leads to mate in 10 as long as the follow-up is the approach of the Black King.

But before that, White blew a securely drawn position with some chances to swindle a win (white to play):

The moves just prior to arriving at this position were 59.f4 Kf7. I had realized that with my pawn back on f3, e5 was dangerous for me because of the way it can spring the d5 pawn free for a queening race. Unfortunately, playing 59.f4 and locking a bead on the hole at e5 made me think that e6-e5 had been prevented forever. It had not. With sober reflection on information that I definitely had access to, I could see that playing Kd7, Kd8, Kd7, and Kd6 would secure the draw for me. The e-file squares - e6, e7, and e8 - are crucial to White's winning chances and if he stays in contact with them, any variation that Black initiates with ...e5 fxe5 f4 e6 will probably end badly for Black because the e-pawn will likely check the Black King on the way to e8, giving the new White Queen time to execute the upstart Black Pawn on f2. With more sober reflection, I should have been more patient here and tried to advance my queenside pawns. 60.a4! is one move away from a winning position. However, if Black also reflects soberly, he can realize that e5 loses, and blockading my queenside pawns can secure a draw for him also. 60.a4! a5! 61.Kd7 Kf6 is drawn as is 60.b4 b5! 61.Kd7!= If somehow Black doesn't see the danger, then the variation 60.a4 Kf6? 61.a5! Kf7 62.b4 Kf6 63.Kc7 is won for White. e.g. 63...Ke7 64.Kxb7! e5 65.fxe5! f4 66.b5! axb5 67.a6! f3 68.a7 f2 69.a8=Q f1=Q 70.Qa6! Qc4 71.Qf6+! Kd7 72.Qd6+! Ke8 73.e6! initiates checkmate in 6 moves. If after 70.Qa6!, Black tries to hold with 70...Qf5 71.Qd6+ Kf7 72.Qxd5+ also keeps White's winning chances alive. Going back to 60.a4!, one last bit of interesting subtlety is that 60...b6 61.b4 Kf6! 62.b5 axb5! is still drawn albeit precariously.

At this point, my greed for pouncing on the queenside pawns made me impatient and I played 60.Kc7?? e5! 61.fxe5 Ke6. Note that Ke7 would have also prevented White from queening and also gives White a move if stalemate is a problem. Black correctly calculated that given a chance with 61...f4? White would have played 62.Kd7! and White is back from the dead and winning, e.g. 62...f3 63.e6+ Kg7 64.e7 f2 65.e8=Q f1=Q 66.Qe5+ Kf8 67.Qb8+ Kg7 68.Qxb7 and White is +4.0 in Stockfish's evaluation. For continuity, the moves that got us to the pivotal checkmate or stalemate position above were 62.Kxb7 f4 63.Kxa6 f3 64.b4 f2 65.a4 f1=Q+ 66.b5 Qc4 67.a5 Qxd4 68.b6

One more bit of shoulda-coulda. From the above diagram, rewind the game another 10 moves and we arrive here with White to make move 50:

Material is equal. Black's e-pawn is backward. White's h-pawn is passed. The crucial idea that I missed was that my h-pawn is vulnerable if it runs too far ahead, but if I centralize my White King, the h-pawn can be a valuable distraction. To that end, 50.Ke3! was a priority to prepare for a possibility of 50...Nf6? 51.Bxf6 Kxf6 52.Kf4 with winning advantage. Because of safe, time-wasting moves like Rh1-h2 and back, White can eventually zugzwang Black's king and or rook to allowing h5-h6, h6-h7, and Kf4-e5. Instead, I finally pushed back this troublesome knight on e4 and played 50.f3 Nf6. Here, 51.Bxf6 Kxf6 52.Ke3 Kg5=. The game went 51.h6 Ng8 52.Bf4 Kg6 53.Ke3 Nxh6 54.Rxh6+ Rxh6 55.Bxh6 Kxh6 56.Kf4 Kg6 57.Ke5 Kf7 58.Kd6 Kf6 59.f4 Kf7 and we meet the above "drawish" position.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Kinetic Linking

Kinetic linking is the way in which a boxer plants his feet and makes you feel the force of the ground in his punch. I was recently talking to a mentee and mistakenly thought the term was "chaining". I have not always been a fan of studies and problems. Of course I usually recommend Chess Tempo and Reinfeld's 1001 Winning Chess Combinations and Sacrifices. The positions look normal. To add the element of composition tends to create an artificial feeling and a sense of impracticality to over-the-board play. However, as a chess player, I recognize the need to improve my calculation ability. I usually use the computer as the gold standard with its full width-depth search and evaluation. Of course, we humans have a much slower and less thorough engine and it has been argued that we were successful at playing chess before the engine even existed. Why emulate it? Still, in the matter of perfection of analysis, it is now easy to see where humans miss things that the computer sees. Hidden resources. So I tend to reference Charles Hertan who tries to get us to calculate with Forcing Chess Moves using what he calls "computer eyes". In 1925, Leonid Kubbel published his collection of 150 Endgame Studies. They had no computers, but they did have sheer human grit and imagination. The endgame study often shows surprising resources and I believe it helps me to increase my imagination and therefore my breadth of vision on a given ply. It also helps to train my depth of calculation, especially if I try to solve the initial diagram without moving the pieces.

I didn't find Kubbel initially. A. J. Roycroft has a book called "The Chess Endgame Study: A Comprehensive Introduction." In it, diagram 13 on page 34 shows the following diagram which is #150 of Kubbel's book and also serves as the front cover:

The process of solving this study involves chaining together idea after idea until each side has played 6 more or less forced moves. Then the hard part is allowing Black a fairly safe looking formation only to break it open with a wild tactical possibility that actually works out. I think this study trains both depth and width and epitomizes my current search for clarity in my calculating ability. I'm probably missing out on complex tactics while I avoid Chess Tempo, but, oh well, this is what gives me fun at the moment.

SOLUTION: 1.Ne3++ Kg3 2.Qg4+ Kf2 3.Qf4+ Ke2/e1 4.Qf1+ Kd2 5.Qd1+ Kc3 6.Qc2+ Kb4 7.Qb2+ Nb3 (7...Ka5 8.Nc4+ Ka6 9.Qb6#) 8.Qa3+!! Kxa3 (8...Kb5 9.Qxe7) 9.Nc2#

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Rose

I haven't been reading too intensively, but Temposchlucker has been coining lots of new terms as shorthand for analysis. I'm all for acronyms and jargon as they help marshall this imperfect thing we call language into conceptual constructs. I was speaking to a beginner and using the French term "en passant" and the Italian term "fianchetto". The student asked, "Why call it that?" I had to think on my feet quickly, and decided to bluff my way into, "It's a nickname for a longer mouthful of words." The student recognized "phalanx" as Greek shorthand for "a row of infantrymen holding their shields and spears in tight formation". Phalanx was helpful to illustrate how a pawn front gets disrupted from move to move.

I have been reading Leonid Kubbel's "150 Endgame Studies". It was written in Russian and translated to German and so I am further translating it to English along with going over fun and pretty studies, and of course checking the analysis with engines. Leonid was born Karl Artur Leonid (K. A. L.) Kubbel but changed his name to Leonid Ivanovich Kubbel, apparently in response to the 1917 October Revolution.

A while back I was into wilderness survival movies surrounding Everest and other high peaks around the world. But I also came across the tragic story of Alaskan adventure gone wrong in Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" book which was made into a movie starring Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless. Chris seemed to want to escape his identity and rebrand himself as "Alex Supertramp", but he himself (in the movie) read a passage from Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago:

The path trodden by wayfarers and pilgrims followed the railway and then turned into the fields. Here Lara stopped, closed her eyes and took a good breath of the air which carried all the smells of the huge countryside. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the meaning of her life. She was here on earth to make sense of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, then, out of love of life, to give birth to heirs who would do it in her place.

The philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac observed, "Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas".

There is also a Confucius quote, "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

But Shakespeare seems to be taking the opposite tack that the label we attach to a rose does not change its sweet fragrance. It was a helpful analogy that the feud between the Montagues and Capulets might not be a natural outpouring of antagonistic essences. I have been trying to teach my beginner that the pieces are white and black, but the squares are light and dark.

What am I getting at here? I don't know. Chess is geometry and physics and logic. If we are to finesse our way through chess' myriad formations, perhaps a richer vocabulary is necessary. It's difficult to adopt neologisms because we have to stop to explain the new definitions to everyone learning the language.

I had a time translating Kubbel's book into English since I know approximately 3 phrases in German and less in Russian. I was helped tremendously by the various web translation services of Google, Babylon, and Reverso. Still, the computers create awkward syntax, so it was left to me to exercise my skills to make smooth English. "Discovered check" always seemed to come out of the translator as "deduction chess". I also learned some new concepts of chess problems such as Indian and Roman themes

One surprising coincidence was that my last tournament game ended with my saving half a point by forcing my opponent to stalemate me. I don't know that I appreciate Kubbel's penchant for finding stalemates in his "White to play and draw" studies. They are sometimes rather funny, and, apparently to my last game, slightly practical. In my endgame obsessions, I was most intrigued by those board states that boil down to "only moves" - One move to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. I used to have an email signature from the early days of the internet "Somewhere on the board, the best move is waiting." I think there was a longer version that went like "Somewhere on the board, hidden among inaccuracies, dubious moves, and outright blunders, the best move is waiting."

It always struck me weird that a song that has a repetitive phrase "Some Say Love" is titled "The Rose". For Valentine's Day. We nurture these seeds in our lives in the hopes they become beautiful flowers someday.